CES 2013: Ultra High-End Audio (Hi-Fi+)

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CES 2013: Ultra High-End Audio (Hi-Fi+)

The speciality audio section of CES and The Home Entertainment show combined provide a fertile environment for products freed from the bounds of ‘sane’ pricing. In fact, you quickly become entirely impervious to telephone number prices at the show – someone could hand you a box the size of a glasses case and you’d be unable to determine whether said box was worth $10 or $1,000,000, based on function alone. While the ultra-high-end would cease to exist if there was no market for such products, there seems to be no end to the one-upmanship and ever-escalating prices.

This year, I decided to take a longer view than the normal, write-it-as-fast-as-you-can approach. This considered view allows one to compare what’s good and not so good over time, instead of the more immediate view of what’s in front of you. Of course, some of this ties in with magazine schedules, but it means that things that had immediate ‘bling’ factor but not enough staying power simply didn’t make the cut.

However, I don’t think it’s right to ‘name and shame’ these brands. It may be they were having a bad spell in the room, it may be I was having a bad patch, or it might be that the room simply wasn’t performing as it should throughout the whole week. Nevertheless, when things cost the wrong side of a Mercedes, this is unforgiveable and I decided discretion is the best course of action here.

The highest levels of high-end audio seem to be dominated by three almost opposing forces. The ‘damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!’ view is perhaps uppermost. This is the drive by a talented designer to build the very best product he or she is capable of making, irrespective of R&D, tooling, materials and manufacturing costs. In bygone days, such design excess would likely appear as the audiophile equivalent of a concept car, or even become a development platform for the designer to create real-word products. Now, however, it seems no matter how extravagant the design, how vast the Bill of Materials or how huge the end-user price ends up, there will be a market for the product.

 

Vertere

However, at $35,000 the Vertere Reference Tonearm tests that theory somewhat comprehensively. Despite Vertere being known as one of the new wave of cable companies, the chief designer of the company – Touraj Moghaddam – was the original designer of the Roksan Xerxes turntable and (perhaps even more relevant under the circumstances) the Artemiz tonearm. Touraj has said he always felt he wanted to see just how far you can take the concept of a tonearm, when unconstrained by . It reads like a laundry list of the best materials for the job; titanium, aluminium, stainless steel and tungsten carbide. The armtube and headshell are interference-fit welded together, while the non-rotating bearings are split and the counterweight is articulated, so vertical and horizontal geometries are deliberately different to respectively optimise treble precision and bass dynamics. Even the compliance of the system is adjustable. The level of obsessive detail is extreme, even by audiophile standards – even the lift-lower arm is made from scratch and it has a stylus guide light built into the armtube. Yes, the price is fierce, but in the context of the uber-high-end deck du jour (the $85,000 TechDAS Air Force One), Burmester and Viola Labs electronics and a pair of tall, but elegant $80,000 Genesis G2jr towers (sporting a 48in custom made ribbon midrange, a dozen inch-wide dome tweeters and two 12-in woofers with a built-in 1kW servo-controlled bass amplifier) the sound was both controlled and delivered a healthy sense of shock and awe to nearby rooms. And in demonstration (and comparison), the tonearm did deliver the goods.

 

Nola

The new Nola Concert Grand Reference loudspeakers tipped the scales at a frisky $197,000 per pair. And yet, they are only second in the Nola range – that crown goes to the four-box $278,000 Grand Reference IV. In comparison, this 71” high loudspeaker (with its two 12” subwoofers, four 4 ½” woofers in the enclosed cabinet, another quartet of 4 ½” midrange, foot-long tweeter ribbon and inch-high super tweeter on the open baffle) is almost compact. It’s claimed to plunge to 16Hz, soar to 46kHz, is extremely efficient and sounded excellent, and is very definitely the result of Carl Marchisotto of Nola Audio pushing the design he knows so well to the limits.

The Nola system also demonstrated one of the odd paradoxes of the current market. It used the excellent Audio Research Reference 75 power amplifier as deliverer of juice to the loudspeakers. This was perfect in the role, but you became aware that, amid all the ARC Reference devices up stream and the NOLAs downstream, the power amp was the cheapest device in the whole signal chain, by a fairly substantial amount. Even just a few feet of the yard-upon-yard of Nordost Odin in the system would have out-priced the Ref 75.

 

Crystal Cable/Siltech

Husband and wife team Edwin and Gabi van der Kley-Rijnveld between them run Siltech and Crystal Cable respectively. And naturally, they shared a room, with Crystal Cable presenting the Absolute Dream cable range and the Absolute Arabesque; a $90,000 version of the ‘standard’ all glass Arabesque wired with Absolute Dream along with a host of other changes. Siltech on the other hand demonstrated its three box battery-powered SAGA amplifier system; a line preamplifier, a tube-powered voltage gain section and a transistor-powered current-gain stage, all for a smooth $100,000. It took a day or so for the batteries to settle down, but when they did, it sounded sublime. Perhaps I shouldn’t break a confidence, but the dirty little secret here was this was being fed by a MacBook driving the super-cheap Micromega MyDac… albeit a MyDac fed by an Absolute Dream USB cable.

 

Neodio/Lamm

In the US and UK, the humble CD is in steep decline. In other parts of the world, it is still flourishing. And it’s this still flourishing market that’s the intended audience for the $38,000 Neodio Origine, playing through LAMM’s excellent L2 Reference preamp, ML3 Signature power amps, top Kubala Sosna cable into Wilson Audio MAXX3. The elegant French player is CD only, although it has USB and coaxial digital inputs. The company pointed to its resonance and vibration-free chassis (made from a quintet of high-grade materials, but regrettably, unobtanium, adamatium, and dilithium crystals were not available at this time), a high precision clock and careful development on the power supply, as being the main physical strengths of the player.

This very definitely belongs to the ‘damn the torpedoes…’ class of player. No sane audio company would bring out a $38,000 CD player, especially a $38,000 CD player in 2013. In it’s defence, it was one of the few digital players that didn’t sound outclassed by the vinyl competition, and given the massive price differential between the Origine and the Kronos/Graham/Lamm-derived LP alternative, that shows there’s possibly more to the Neodio player than just a price tag.

 

Magico

Another prime mover in the ultra high end stakes is the ultimate expression of audio’s carriage trade; essentially ‘one off’ products commissioned by the distributors or end users, which ultimately form a part of the company’s product range due to demand. Magico’s notorious M-Rack (which costs anything from $30,000-$50,000 depending on configuration) is one such device. Commissioned by high-rolling Magico M-series users – surely ‘high-rolling’ is redundant here? – the M-Rack is designed to extend the performance of the company’s Q-Pods to a whole, insanely heavy rack system. The reaction to such a high-end rack has been predictably angry, perhaps detracting from the impact of the new S1 floorstander.

Kronos Audio also designed a new modular rack suited to bring out the best from its Kronos turntable, but at around $10,000 it passed almost unnoticed. Many rooms also featured HRS, Stillpoints and Critical Mass Systems racks that added up to many tens of thousands of dollars.

 

Boulder

Most of these carriage trade products were on display rather than demonstration, such as the 3000 series amplifiers from Boulder. This time, however, there was good reason for this; the amplifiers only run on 240V. Unless you run these from cooking range or industrial circuits in the US, the $115,000 linear Class A 3000 series amps will not operate on US soil. They only run 240V; whether that’s for full rated power (as Boulder suggests) or because the market that demanded the 3000 series – and the only place on the planet such products could sell – is those parts of the Far East that support 240V.

The company’s new 3060 stereo amplifier is derived from the big $205,000 3050 mono amps. This new stereo chassis is ‘only’ the size and weight of a car engine, but it’s 120 output devices can deliver 900W per channel into practically any load, and swings the sort of current delivery that is claimed to deliver near-realistic sound pressure and dynamic range from almost any loudspeaker. With its sophisticated modular layout, elegant milled case and central screened transformers, all it needs is a LED display counting down seconds and it could pass for an atom bomb in an action movie.

 

YG Acoustics

The last, and arguably best, motivator in the ultra high-end world is the drive to make a good thing better. And that can certainly sum up the performance of the new Sonja loudspeaker from YG Acoustics. Taking everything the company has learned from its Anat, Kipod and even Carmel designs, the new Sonja 1.3 ($106,800/pr) is a modular design (like the Anat III and Kipod Signature II) but the bass is fully passive (like the Carmel). It features a lot of trademarked processes in driver design and aluminium cabinet manufacture (reducing the cabinet mass without undermining cabinet stiffness is only a part of the process). In its full form, it’s tall, but not imposing and – played on the end of a Scheu/Zanden analog or Aurender/dCS digital front-end, into a Veloce preamp and D’Agostino monoblocs using K-S Elation cables, the performance was one of the best YG has delivered at a show… and that’s saying something! Elsewhere in the show, YG showed off its new Kipod Signature II Passive, but I timed out on hearing this.

 

The two best cost-no-object systems

In the Mirage, the combination of dCS Vivaldi four-box CD on a Stillpoints rack into a pair of D’Agostino Millennium monoblocs to a pair of the new(ish) $48,000/pr Wilson Audio Alexias (all using Transparent cable) was just the best sound I’ve ever heard at any show. Capable of a combination of near-real dynamics and scale, coupled with a sense of musical accuracy and fidelity few systems attain, this sounded more like the real deal than most. “They’re our pair,” beamed David Steven of dCS, pointing to the Alexias, “they’re coming home with me!” I think the almost atavistic desire to own this system would make anyone do the same. This was awesome stuff. Although this system added up to a fruity super-high price tag (all things considered, not much change from a quarter of a million bucks), by the sharp-intake-of-breath standards of the some of the systems, this was great-sounding loose change. Almost.

While also showing precisely nothing brand-spanking-new, MBL’s ultra-extreme-super-high-end system (featuring the 101 X-Treme four box speaker system, a snip at $270,000) always delivers something between awesome and whatever goes beyond awesome. Sitting in the hot seat on the last day of the show (the crowds thin out and you can get the best seat in the house with ease) this might look like the inside of Dr Who’s Tardis, but the sound it produces is truly sensational. Climbing down from Mt. Trillionaire for a moment, MBL was also showing the latest addition to its ‘entry level’ Corona Line, the $25,000 per pair C15 monoblocs on the complete Corona system, but after spending a solid quarter of an hour sitting in front of the Full Banana MBL system, it was hard to judge how good these ‘budget’ blocs will be.

Ultimately, the top floors of the Venetian tower in Las Vegas can make prices spin. There were other systems, including a number in THE Show that performed acts of magic. At least, making half a million dollars sound like a trivial sum of money, sounds like magic to me. But where last year, the top dollar systems in T.H.E. Show often outperformed the big hitters at CES, this year I felt the reverse was true.

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